Opening on Friday, May 4th, is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, John Madden’s outstanding film starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Penelope Winton, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel and Tena Desae. The film revolves around a group of English pensioners who abandon their homeland when enticed by advertisements of ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, a seemingly luxurious sanctuary for “the elderly and beautiful” in Jaipur, India. On arrival they discover that the hotel falls somewhat short of the romantic idyll but they are gradually won over by the ever-optimistic young entrepreneurial manager, Sonny (Dev Patel). One of the best things about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, besides of course the incredible cast, is the story and the way it follows both the retirees’ stories and those of the Indian people they meet. The movie illuminates the clashes of the tradition and the modern in India regarding work, family and love. One of the great story arcs is that of Sunaina, a modern Indian girl working at a call center. She is in love with the hotel manager, Sunny, who has a very traditional mother. At the call center, Sunaina’s path also crosses Evelyn, played by the legendary Dame Judi Dench. After three rounds of auditions, in whichshe had to work through every scene she would do in the film, Indian actress Tena Desae was chosen for the role of Sunaina. Director John Madden said, “The movie’s discovery: the young Indian actress Tena Desae, who plays Sonny’s girlfriend, Sunaina. She’s so talented and beautiful—a complete natural.” A relative newcomer, the model turned actress, was seen in India in Yeh Faasley and Sahi Dhandhe Galat Bande. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is her first role in a big budget Hollywood/British film. We caught up with the actress on a Sunday in New York and had a fun conversation talking about her role, the time she was so in awe she missed her cue, and why she loves The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel!
Tell us about your character Sunaina.
I like Sunaina’s role because I was wondering when I read the script – how did they get it so right? I know that my character is not in the book. I thought that whoever wrote the script, which was Ol Parker, he probably spent a good amount of time in India to know exactly how things work here. It’s exactly how any of my friends, or my sister, or anybody is in India right now. You know, they are all career oriented and modern and ambitious and want to go out there and do their thing, but at the same time they are very clearly Indian and follow traditions and are understanding towards people who are orthodox and older people. So it’s very typical. I love that I got to play someone so real.
So, you find out you have the part and then you find out you have to do a scene with Dame Judi Dench. What was your first thought?
(Laughs) When I went into the first round of auditions I didn’t know anything about the film. I didn’t know that it was a Hollywood film, that it was a British film. I did not know who the cast was, who the director was, anything. And when I finished my audition I looked around the office, because I was giving the casting director my details, and on the bulletin board there were pictures of Judi and Maggie and Bill Nighy and Dev, and I asked, ‘Are these the actors of the film? Why are their pictures up?’ And he answered, ‘Because they ARE part of the film!’ And I was like, ‘Reaaallyyy?’ (Wish you could hear her say this–so cute! -ed). I completely freaked out. I was so excited after that because I had no clue. I mean I could not believe that I was even testing for the film. That was exciting enough. And then after the rounds of auditions I said, ‘Any time you want me, I want this film.’ I jumped around the house when I got the good news. I was ecstatic!
There is that one scene in the call center that was mainly you and Judi Dench. What was that like to do? It must have been amazing!
I was so nervous. I was so in awe of what she was doing that I lost all my concentration and forgot that we were filming this scene. So when she finished her paragraph long dialogue, you know I just stared and I did not remember that I had a cue. The director John had to call cut and then I realized I had zoned out. She had to do a retake just for me. I felt even more nervous because I felt bad that she had to do such a long dialogue all over again because I was zapped and in awe of her. But I think it came out well in the end. She’s just very easy to work with because she’s just so real. What can I say? I watched her in person and that was unbelievable to have had that experience.
You worked a lot opposite Dev Patel. Tell us about acting with him.
He’s a mad guy. I mean for some reason I did not expect him to be that tall. And I did not realize that he had a British accent, so I was quite surprised when I met him. But he’s instantly likable because he’s a people’s person and so he’s very easy to get along with. He’s high energy. He’s great to work with because he’s very concerned about what you think about the scene and then he’s constantly discussing it so that it gets better. We had many rehearsals on our own to make the scene as good as we could make it. I enjoyed the process. It was my first romantic story ever so I liked the fact that I had a track, which required the guy to run after me and win me over. And it was really cute for the part so I loved it.
Did he ever crack you up because he is just so high energy in the film?
Unbelievable! And that’s how he is in real life too. It’s great. It might be three in the morning and he’s still jumping up and down. He brought that to the film. It’s really nice because in contrast to the other actors, you know, that when he comes in then definitely it’s going to be a bright, crazy scene, which just works so well. Not something I imagined when I read the script, but that’s his addition to the character and it’s really great.
One of the thing I loved about the film was the many different arcs in the film and the portrayal of the newcomers to India mixing with Indian traditions, Indian characters, stories, your story arc with Dev and how it all wove together so well.
Yeah! Absolutely. I mean I liked that everyone’s got their separate track and yet at the same time it all comes in towards the end. In the end there is this big courtyard scene in the film and everyone’s problems are just sorted out one after another and there’s a happy ending, which is brilliant because that’s how most Hindi films are you know… everything works out in the end. That’s the line that Dev has in the film as well [“In India, we have a saying – everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”] And I like how Judi comes in and I don’t know her from Adam but she comes in and she gets a job at the call center, which is a great coincidence. She helps my case because she convinces Dev to stand up and fight for me, which is brilliant. And for all of these stories that are twisted in and it just culminates in a happy ending. I like how that’s shown so sensitively.
What did you learn about acting on this film?
Well, up until this movie I used to read the scene or a script and think of it in my head and see how I wanted to play it and stick by that. So when I go on set I would do whatever I thought I should, which is fine. But then on this film, I saw what happens with the other actors in the film is that they also make use of whatever is around them. So they use as many props as they can, they use the location and they walk around. Also the system of filming was different in this – John doesn’t really ask you to do the scene to favor the camera. He just calls you into the location or set, watches what you are going to do with the scene and places the camera accordingly. So you’re just really doing stuff without having to worry about the technical side of filming. That’s great because then you can just move around and you are not worrying about whether you are off camera or what your movements are – it doesn’t restrict you. Also they are all very, very spontaneous. The things that they add to their performance, which is not on paper, it’s something they think they can add and it comes in so beautifully. They keep working on it so every take, every rehearsal they try and do something different and that’s really nice. So it just opened me up to experimenting more.
You have worked both in Indian film and now on this film, were there any differences in working in the two types of films?
It’s very hard for me to say really because I’ve done two independent films in India and I haven’t done any big budget films like this. And my second film was a smaller role. It was mostly based on politics so I didn’t have that much of a role. So I don’t know how the industry works yet in Bollywood even. Of my experiences on this film what I liked was the rehearsals, because that was not something I had in my previous films. That is something I really enjoyed because I know that made a huge difference. Also I know everything works like clockwork here. If your call time was 9, you have to be there at 9, because if you go in at 9:10 or 9:15 then the next actor who has to come in for makeup gets delayed. Everyone’s time is really respected and you don’t just have to hang out on set when you are not required, which is great. The third thing is that every department is really passionate about their job – the art department takes their job really seriously, they enjoy what they are doing so they go out of their way to do it. And because they enjoy what they are doing, the end product is really brilliant because then it’s not just the people just doing their job, they are doing what they enjoy. Again I don’t know; it could very well be like that in all industries. It’s just that of what experience I’ve had this is what I’ve found was different.
What do you love about the film?
So many things! I love that it’s got a message but it’s told humorously that it doesn’t sound preachy and it doesn’t bore you. I love that it’s got a happy ending. The cast is fantastic. Everyone’s performance is really brilliant. I love that India is shown in a great light and so true to real life and the characters and the situations. Nothing dramatic, nothing filmi. Everything was just so true. So many things, I just love it! It’s just so entertaining. It’s a feel good film. You come out feeling happy which is the point of the film to go entertain and come out happy and with a memory to go home with.
The film was received brilliantly in UK…
I know, it was so thrilling.
You had a red carpet premiere there and now one in New York City…how has this all been?
I’m living my dream. It’s just so much fun you know planning the clothes, planning the shoes, accessories, hair, make up. I’m also extending my trip so I can do some sightseeing. Doing all these interviews like this. You know I almost don’t want it to end because I’m having so much fun.
Be sure and see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and also check out our interview with director John Madden here!